images.jpgSomething I’ve been saying for a while is that the continued fracturing of DRM into different solutions makes Epub essentially useless as an open format. Apple, of course, has made this even worse with its new iBookstore.

Now, an excellent article in Amazon Kindle Review looks at the reality of the situation from the consumer, not the techie or the ideologue, standpoint. Read the whole article, please.

There are two ways to look at the eReaders, eBooks, and formats situation –

1. Kindle has its own proprietary format, Apple and B&N add on their own custom DRM to ePub, Sony uses DRMed ePub that any Adobe DRM supporting device can access, libraries use DRMed ePub that also any Adobe DRM supporting device can access. It’s a royal mess.
2. The Kindle platform works across the PC, the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, the Kindle (obviously), and there are rumors it will work on Linux and with new Tablets. Without much ado the kindle format has come close to being a universal format.

The latter is closer to solving the formats problem than the former – What’s the point of ePub if every company adds its own DRM on top of it and makes it unable to work on other ePub devices?

The first thing to do is separate ideology from practicality –

1. Ideology says we need an open format that has no restrictions and works across all devices.
2. Practicality says we need a format that works across all devices.

Ideology might never win out because Publishers and Established Authors are reluctant to leave themselves at the mercy of the anonymous crowds. Look at the much-promised openness of ePub – It doesn’t exist. B&N, Apple, Sony, and libraries are all using DRM so it’s hardly open. Plus Apple and B&N are using custom DRM (in the case of B&N a special password) that renders their ebooks unusable on each other’s and Sony’s devices. …

People are more concerned about easy and universal access to their books People don’t care whether it’s one leading company that dominates ebooks or whether it’s a group of companies that have banded around an ‘open’ format. … Format is an unknown to users – they only think in terms of books, reading, and reading devices.

They don’t really care about whether it is a .doc or a .pdf or a .azw at the end of the files. Perhaps they wouldn’t even want to know about these extensions and formats – It’s just text after all.


  1. They are right, and they aren’t. Take the situation in my house. I read on my iPhone. My husband has a Sony 505. We can’t both read in Kindle format on our preferred readers. Sure, he could read on his netbook, but he’d rather not.

    So for us, buying books from Kobo is ideal. Kobo reader isn’t my favorite (I prefer Stanza), but for books we both want to read, it’s the best approach.

  2. I’m still amazed, years after the fact, that the group behind epub did not specify a single, open, DRM standard to go along with the single, open, file format.

    I’m also amazed, years after the launch of ebooks, that publishers have not banded together to create a single, all-publishers ebook-store where all readers have an account, and can re-download any book on their shelf of already-purchased books.

    My only conclusion to the above riddles is that publishers still fail to understand what is happening in the world. They probably all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the initial surge of enthusiasm for ebooks died, 10 years ago. ‘Whew, we don’t have to worry about ebooks now,’ they must have thought…and proceeded to do their absolute minimum to deal with reality.

    And yet, publishing has faced this not too long ago: I imagine when paperback editions first surfaced, 60 years ago or so, there were publishers who proudly stuck to hardcovers only. How many of them still do that? Are today’s publishers incapable of learning of the events of their own childhood?

    Amazon does indeed get one thing right: Amazon wants to sell books. Publishers want to boost profits and protect old and dying business models. And they get upset when Amazon goes on to sell a lot of books.

    — asotir

  3. Sadly, it’s a Kindle-partisan article on a Kindle-partisan site. It would’ve been nice if the author had actually looked at what the competition is up to.

    One big thing that the article gets wrong is that the ‘Kindle standard’ does not provide ‘Universal access’, because it is not available for incorporating into competing e-readers. If it were, that would be a different story. As it is, if you want to read Amazon books you need a Kindle or Amazon software. The ‘Kindle standard’ is only ‘universal’ because Amazon has built a near-monopoly on e-book sales and e-book readers—a pax Amazonia.

    And contrary to the article, the other dedicated e-readers have settled on a ‘competing standard’: Adobe Reader Mobile. Reader Mobile supports EPUB and PDF, both unprotected and protected with Adobe’s DRM system. The ‘Adobe EPUB’ is the competing DRMed standard.

    Barnes & Noble should get at least half-credit on the DRM issue. They have opened up their DRM system to other e-readers by cooperating with Adobe to have it incorporated into Reader Mobile (as of version 9.1). That doesn’t help until other e-readers actually start incorporating RM9.1 into their products, but eventually it will happen.

    The article’s claim that “B&N’s Nook doesn’t have any sharing of notes via the Cloud” is temporary (it says here). That sharing is a claimed feature of the nook, although it’s apparently not yet implemented.

    I’d be tickled pink if I could read Kindle e-books on my nook. A huge percentage of nook owners would be. But since the ‘Kindle standard’ isn’t being shared, it’s not really a standard—just a monopoly.

  4. Apple’s decision to do their own DRM was a real blow to ePub. With Amazon dominating the market, competitors need to show an advantage and interoperability would be a big one.

    I agree that Amazon’s push to make Kindle-everywhere is a strong strategic move on their part. I believe that Amazon is in eBooks for the long term. That said, as a consumer I don’t like being locked into any particular format or reading device. Still, if I were Amazon, I suspect I’d be doing exactly what they’re doing–and it seems to be working.

    Rob Preece

  5. Ummm… no. I agree that the Kindle has become something of a universal reading solution for those who want to read on multiple devices. This article, however, ignores some basic facts (even while obliquely referencing them). The Sony Device uses Adobe DRM, that means that virtually any other device that can use Adobe DRM will be able to read books bought for the Sony Reader. And Adobe DRM based readers are available for the PC and MAC, as well as about a dozen dedicated readers. Barnes and Nobles not only produces the Nook, but software that allows users to read on the PC, Mac, Blackberry and iPhone/iPad. Ultimately, I fully expect that the it will cover at least as many devices as the Kindle does, if not more.

    So what exactly do we have here? We have created at least four little ebook universes that work on multiple devices… as long as you stay in that universe. So after buying Kindle books for a couple of years, Amazon has made it very hard for Kindle buyers to switch to the Nook or the Sony reader unless they are willing to abandon all the books they have bought. Likewise, for the Nook. At least with the Sony, you may not be able to use the Kindle or the Nook, but there are a dozen other dedicated readers you can use.

    Now here is the thing, I suspect that there are too many players in the market. I suspect ultimately that only two or three of the formats are really going to survive in the long term. At the moment, I guess the smart money would be on Amazon and Apple, but no one can be sure. As players leave the market, DRM means that readers will loose the ability to transition their books to new computers and new devices, so as their old ones break down, they loose access.

    This is not a question of ideology, it is a question of simple facts. As long as their is proprietary DRM, there is a risk that I will loose books I pay for unless I either only buy books without DRM or I am willing to break the law and strip the DRM from the books. Not much of a choice is it?

  6. Yes, people in general don’t care about formats, but only when there is a universal format. But they also want a choice where to buy ebooks and where to buy an ereader. There is more in ebooks than Amazon and the few others that sell compatible stuff. And there is much more choice in ereaders than the few Kindle models. The Kindle platform may be available on Macs, PCs, iPhones and iPod Touches, but it is not available on a Sony, Bebook, or Nook. And Amazon makes it impossible for these companies to make their format available on these ereaders.

    When you buy a DVD it plays on any DVD player, and if not, you complain. That should be the situation with ereaders and ebooks. In that sense ePub is more universal because it runs on more ereaders (almost every ereader these days).
    On the other hand, the DRM ruins much of this. As mentioned, because there isn’t a universal system. But there is also another problem that would still be present if every ereader supported Adobe DRM. The problem is that the responsibility for the system is divided over too many parties. You have the publisher or shop that applies the DRM when selling a book. Then there is Adobe who supplies the software. And the ebook producer who implements the software in an ereader. When somethong goes wrong, for example the ebook that you have bought won’t open on your ereader, they start finger pointing to each other. The ebook seller usually doesn’t want to acknowledge that something goes wrong and says you should contact the ereader producer. And often it is a problem with the Adobe registration so they point you to Adobe. Sometimes they can do something but not always. And the poor consumer doesn’t know what to do. Read the various forums about the problems people have.

    This is definitely an advantage of the Amazon system where everything is in one hand. And because they have carefully adapted all aspects of the infrastructure to work together you hardly see problems with that system. But it comes at a cost: diminished competition, less choice and incompatibility when you want to buy something else.

    We should definitely go to a system that is more close to the DVD system or the CD system where all content plays on every player and where people don’t have to supply an email address or a credit card number to be able to read their ebooks.

  7. @Bill McHale:

    The Barnes & Noble world is slowly merging with the EPUB world. The nook reads Adobe EPUBs just fine, and I rarely consider any e-book that isn’t either DRM-free EPUB or Adobe EPUB for my nook.

    B&N is in the process of converting their e-book downloads from eReader (PML PDB) format to EPUB. But they aren’t using Adobe’s ADEPT DRM system, which has been cracked. B&N is using its own ‘social+password’ DRM. Yes, that’s a problem for now, but B&N has cooperated with Adobe to put B&N DRM capabilities into Adobe Reader Mobile starting with version 9.1. Eventually, Reader Mobile-based e-readers should be able to handle both ‘Adobe EPUB’ and ‘B&N EPUB’.

  8. @Piet van Oostrum:

    A “system that is more close to the DVD system or the CD system” is basically a no-DRM system. There is no DRM on CDs, and the DRM on DVDs was cracked over a decade ago and is of no real value. (I don’t know about Blu-Ray.)

    I sure wouldn’t object to moving toward a no-DRM system, but I doubt that you’d get every publisher in line behind it.

  9. “Eventually, Reader Mobile-based e-readers should be able to handle both ‘Adobe EPUB’ and ‘B&N EPUB’.”

    Until Adobe updates content server (and it’s DRM) again in a few years and eventually those devices don’t get updated by the manufacturers since they’re old and no longer supported and folks miss the ‘deadline’ to update the DRM on they’re books like some did with content server 3 materials they can no longer use on new devices or so I’ve read.
    “There is no DRM on CDs, and the DRM on DVDs was cracked over a decade ago and is of no real value.”

    And every major form of ebook DRM in current use has been cracked as well (except Apple’s AFAIK since it’s so new) so there is little value there, but maybe psychological value to some.

  10. You ask: “What’s the point of ePub if every company adds its own DRM on top of it and makes it unable to work on other ePub devices?”

    The point is that a powerful, standard format for publishing ebooks would be great for publishers and self-publishing authors. It would allow them to take the time to format a book that looks good, besting the current ‘I’m ugly, but I’m cheap’ mindset. It would also allow them to create books that are more visual, with graphics, tables and linking. All that requires a lot of work and, without a standard ebook format, all that labor has to be repeated for each ebook platform. One ebook standard means creating one better-looking ebook, not three or four mediocre-looking ones. That matters.

    In that context, DRM is irrelevant. DRM is the envelope a retailer like Amazon or Apple puts around an ebook. Some readers may hate the restrictions it creates–I certainly do. But it imposes no burden or cost on publishers and it doesn’t get in the way of those who want higher quality ebooks.

    The real problem is that ePub is not very powerful. The ebook it creates can’t be as complex or attractive as a printed book created with WordStar almost thirty years ago. And the problem doesn’t end with the standard. There’s no software that makes it easy to bring out the current, weak though it may be, best in ePub, although that may change when InDesign CS5 is announced next week.

    In short, ebook standards and DRM are different issues. They shouldn’t be confused with one another.

  11. @Doug:

    B&N is in the process of converting their e-book downloads from eReader (PML PDB) format to EPUB. But they aren’t using Adobe’s ADEPT DRM system, which has been cracked. B&N is using its own ’social+password’ DRM.

    Which also has been cracked. Every DRM system will be cracked sooner or later (most of them sooner).

  12. Mike Perry, Yep, DRM imposes no cost on the publisher, because they pass the cost onto the consumer. DRM certainly costs money, money to develop it and money to maintain license servers to allow books to be authorized for new devices. And its not like an envelope… its more like a safe… one where the combination only works if you are trying to open the safe in the right location.

    Honestly, since mobi, epub and kindle format (Just a variation on mobi) are all strongly based on html, it is actually relatively easy to convert one format to the other and maintain the formatting. The difficulties in making ebooks look good, have more to do with the medium. Ebook readers, whether software readers or devices, allow the reader to choose their own font and font size, different devices have different screen sizes and resolutions. All of this means that ultimately, the biggest issue in developing pretty formatting for e-books is developing ebook rendering engines that can turn epub/Mobi/Kindle/html into well formatted books regardless of the size of the screen or text size upon which it is viewed.

  13. //// Which is yet another reason that there shouldn’t even BE an “ebook format”, because it should all be going around as ASCII text. “Oh, but then I wouldn’t be able to include font changes and styling and justification and this-or-that-or-the other!” Buddy, I really don’t care about your creative use of whitespace. I’m here for the TEXT.

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